RTAs: Now is the Time for Progress

August 01, 2019

Guest Blog by Pat Beaudry of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission.

At a time when we are mobilizing to reduce tailpipe pollution and carbon emissions, what would another 30 million annual car trips mean for our air quality and climate crisis? And how would these 30 million additional car trips impact our already chronically congested roads?

We can thank the Commonwealth’s fifteen regional transit authorities (RTAs), which provide bus service outside of the MBTA service area, for helping to ensure that our climate and congestion problems are not getting worse. But RTAs can do so much more for Massachusetts. While the FY 2020 state budget just signed into law prevents RTA service cuts for the first time in years, we should be aiming much higher than just holding on to the status quo.

During this period of economic prosperity, in one of the strongest states in the country, we must ask ourselves this: if we won’t make the investments now to ensure we are doing our level-best to combat economic inequality, congestion, and climate crisis, when will we?

In communities outside of Greater Boston, RTAs serve as a lifeline for those who are unable to own, maintain, or operate a personal vehicle, or for those who prefer public transit. Our RTAs are independently run by local advisory boards and funded by farebox revenue, local government contributions, advertising, state assistance, and federal support.

Serving hundreds of communities across the Commonwealth, RTAs ensure students are able to get to class, patients are able to get to medical appointments, low-income workers are able to get to their jobs on time, and seniors and people with disabilities are able to lead active, fulfilling lives. Consistent with the very idea of a commonwealth, it matters to each of us that we all have convenient, safe, affordable and environmentally-clean transportation choices – regardless of which modes we personally choose to use. We need everyone to get where they need to go.

And we all need better options than we have today. This is true for everyone who uses our inadequate transit, congested roads, and unsafe bike/pedestrian routes. Our entire system, it seems, needs an upgrade, including bus service in the state’s far-flung cities and towns.

Of all the things we need to fix, public transit comes first. It’s why the Governor’s Commission on the Future of Transportation made better public transit the top recommendation in Choices for Stewardship, its 2018 landmark report: 

  • Prioritize investment in public transit as the foundation for a robust, reliable, clean, and efficient transportation system.

Public transit moves the greatest number of people in the most efficient manner. The answer includes the MBTA – but it likewise includes the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority, Worcester RTA, Southeast RTA, Cape Cod RTA, Merrimack Valley RTA, Greater Attleboro-Taunton, Brockton, and more.

RTAs, just like the roads and bridges drivers use every day, are dependent on public support. And the reality is that they need more than what they’re currently getting.

With credit to legislators, this year, after three consecutive years of service cuts, RTAs are finally stabilized in the state budget, with a level of funding that removes the need for public hearings to eliminate routes and hike fares.

But here’s the reality: while state funding allowed RTAs to avoid a third round of cuts in as many years, the $87 million in base funding level still requires RTAs to dip into their capital improvements budgets to make operating ends meet. Seeing firsthand how delaying state of good repair work has impacted the MBTA should make it clear how that approach is not sustainable.

RTAs also need a mandate to innovate, and like every government service, they need accountability. A recent statewide task force convened by MassDOT, including prominent legislators and local leaders recognized that accountability, innovation and funding are all necessary. A Vision for the Future of Massachusetts’ Regional Transit Authorities identified the steps we need to take to fulfill the promise of public transit throughout out state.

So what’s next? This fall, legislative leaders have signaled that transportation revenue is on the table. Whatever outcome is reached needs to include the regional public transportation agencies that serve our workforce, our students, and all others who choose to use it. The tools are in place. Let’s put them to use!

Pat Beaudry is Manager of Public Affairs at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, a T4MA Coalition Member


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